Top Ten Mistakes in College Application Essays

April 6, 2011.  Every writer wants to hear a reader’s compliment.  But students often ask about the other side of the coin–what can go wrong in a college application essay? Avoid:

  1. Writing that is too general. This means a lack of sensory detail (smells, sounds, colors, images) and names, places and dates. Instead of talking about your favorite car, tell why you’ve always loved your dad’s 1999 red mustang.
  2. Putting yourself down, even mildly, even for a sentence.  This doesn’t make you sound modest.  If you judge yourself negatively, why shouldn’t the college admissions officer agree?  Also, never talk about anything illegal you have done or something you are ashamed of.  Confess to your diary or your clergy, not to your college admissions officer.  An instance of this situation—a girl who wrote her college essay about eating a bite of a marijuana brownie—is in The Gatekeepers, by Jacques Steinberg.
  3. Not being specific about why a school appeals to you. This is where a visit and research can be helpful.  Also, when you customize the essay for a school, triplecheck that you have the correct school name in the essay.
  4. A weak first sentence. A first sentence should provide a little taste of who you are, and compel the reader to keep reading. For example, an adult college applicant wrote:  “The School of Information has taken on the far-reaching mission of defining a new set of principles and practices to help today’s society integrate and organize the vast array of information entering our lives on a daily basis.”  He then rewrote his opening sentence to this stronger version:  “From being a bookworm as a kid to prowling the library shelves for a good read as an adult, a life-long love of books and reading has led me on a direct path to the School of Information.”
  5. Cramming the essay full of qualifications instead of having a central idea and focus.
  6. Repetition—saying the same thing over in different ways.
  7. Not writing in your own voice.  Your job is not to blow away your reader with the most poetic simile ever or to write like Hemingway.  Your goal is to write in a way that best expresses who you are.  See the thoughts earlier in this section on finding your voice.
  8. Stories that don’t have a clear point about who you are and what you care about. The best essays include self-reflection.  Ask yourself about an event:  Why did I do that?  What motivated me?  What did it mean to me that that happened?   Show your passions and uniqueness.  For example, schools are not particularly interested in the organization of a club you belong to:  its rules and regulations, officers, etc.  They want to know about you as a member of the club.  You might write about what drew you to the club in the first place, who in the club has affected you and how, how you see yourself as being different than other members of the club, or how this type of club interests you.
  9. A weak ending sentence instead of one that leaves the reader satisfied, interested, smiling.
  10. Saying “you” when you mean “I.”

Remember that typos reproduce when you are sleeping.  Edit, Edit, Edit.  Click here for additional help with writing a college application essay.